Touring on the Helena-Lewis & Clark NF, photo by H. Eisen

The Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest covers a vast portion of central Montana, encompassing island mountain ranges like the Belts and the Crazies, as well as much of the famed Rocky Mountain Front. The forest is home to funky little ski areas and beloved cross-country ski trails, as well as excellent opportunities for backcountry skiers looking to get away from the crowds.

The Forest Service is working on a new forest plan for the Helena-Lewis & Clark and they’re accepting public comment on the draft plan through September 6. The draft includes a broad range of alternatives and covers issues as diverse as grazing, timber production, and recreation. We’re focused on the parts of the plan that impact winter recreation and wildlands.

The Helena-Lewis & Clark is one of just a handful of forests in the country that already completed winter travel planning and we’d like to see the forest plan uphold the good winter travel management decisions already in place. However, we also think there are things the forest could do in the future to improve opportunities and experiences for skiers. For example, there’s a defunct ski area on the forest that we think has the potential to be managed as an unofficial backcountry ski area with just a bit of glading work. Likewise, although this forest covers 2.8 million acres of snowy mountain terrain, there is no avalanche forecaster on the forest or in all of central Montana. We’d like the forest to consider hiring an avalanche forecaster so that winter recreationists have a resource for understanding avalanche conditions across the forest.

In addition to suggesting some new ideas in our comments, we’re supporting proposals from across a variety of the Alternatives in the draft plan. For example, the vast majority of designated Wilderness on the Helena-Lewis & Clark is along the Rocky Mountain Front but there’s a whole lot of wild country in the island ranges on the forest too. We’d like to see some of these places recommended for wilderness and managed in a way to protects their wilderness character. Not all of these places are rad backcountry ski destinations but they’re important for other reasons – from wildlife habitat to providing clean drinking water and containing important pieces of history in the archeological record.

We think a mixture of the wilderness recommendations in Alternatives B and D, and prohibiting snowmobiles in areas that are recommended for wilderness, is the best path forward for protecting the wildlands of central Montana. Recommended wilderness is the strongest protection available in forest planning, and although sometimes is leads to tough trade-offs, sustainable recreation means finding a way to sustain and support the whole range of activities across the entire forest without adversely impacting the places we play or each other. Sometimes that means limiting the types of activities allowed in certain areas.

You can read our comment letter here. If you’d like to send in your own letter to the Forest Service (comments are due September 6) click below to be re-directed to the Helena-Lewis & Clark forest plan revision and commenting page.